Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd of the Western New York Flash did their marauding best to be the first to beat the Seattle Reign. But Seattle’s Jess Fishlock and Kim Little delivered brilliance and the Reign remained resolute, earning a 2-2 draw. Luckily, I was there to cheer the women on and witness a thrilling game. It was a back and forth affair featuring quality goals and late-game heroics, as the masterwork of Fishlock and Little, who is just a titan, kept the Reign’s incredible nine game unbeaten streak alive.
The two team’s featured different attacking styles. Sidereal, of Sounder at Heart, described the Flash as, “the Earthquakes of the NWSL.” The Flash’s attacking six players all towered over Seattle. They threw their bodies around and played boot and chase. Seattle stuck to their recipe of pin-point passing, possession and quality finishing. But the Reign, still missing international stars Nahomi Kawasumi and Megan Rapinoe, and reeling from their first draw against the emerging Kansas City FC, came out slow. The Flash made them pay when Wambach’s strike afforded the visitor’s the early lead. The Reign rebounded and shortly before the half Fishlock’s flying tap-in of a Stephanie Cox cross equalized the game (In fact, Cox impressed throughout. She readily joined the attack from her position as a fullback and her 1v1 defending was tight). In the second half, the Reign dominated. They played quick, attacking soccer, yet were behind after the seeming go-ahead goal was scored by Western New York off a monster set piece header from Lloyd. However, that was all preamble for Little to continue her torrid scoring pace and deliver a ice-cold strike from the top of the box late. It was impressive to see such a collection of world-class players sharing the pitch.
The Reign are an easy team to fall in love with. The above mentioned Fishlock, Little, Cox, Rapinoe and Kawasumi join Sydney Leroux, Hope Solo and Keelin Winters as absolute stars. They play fun, attacking soccer. I started watching the NWSL’s Youtube live streams and, despite the site’s many technical difficulties, I was impressed. The best soccer, regardless of gender, is being played in Seattle. I had felt like a hypocrite. Shouldn’t a soccer loving, liberal, sensitive-new-age guy support the Reign as readily as the Sounders? But after watching the streams, I cared less about my purported politics and more about just seeing a quality, entertaining product. Seattle coach and GM Laura Harvey discussed this recently in an interview saying she wanted people to want to come, not they feel like they had to. She just earned one convert.
The Reign have yet to capture the hearts of the Emerald City. About 3,000 fans have been regularly filling Memorial Stadium, but on Sunday there was 4,000. Attendance had looked sparse on the streams, but in person feels impressive. But Seattle, Soccer City USA, can do better than 4,000.
The women’s game is at a crossroads. The current USWNT roster is chock full of charisma and quality, as much or more than in 1999. But professional leagues come and go. America has been on the vanguard of legitimizing the women’s game, but has witnessed numerous failed professional leagues. The only reason women’s soccer isn’t a run-away cultural phenomenon is because women play it. If the women’s game can’t succeed here, where can it? This current league, the NWSL is home to many excellent players and teams. Your Seattle Reign are so talented, they ought be embraced for the simple reason that excellence is worth notice.
Unfortunately, the NWSL is still fighting to its existence. The league’s existence is not guaranteed past the next Olympic/World Cup cycle. The National Soccer Federations of the USA, Canada and Mexico just found a funding model to prop up this league to keep their best players fit and in-form for the upcoming international competitions. The women’s game is such a rip-roaring success at those large competitions, but not at the club level. It seems our appetite for women’s soccer is sated twice every four years? ESPN is tentatively betting no. Just today it was announced that they signed a (very!) limited broadcast deal with the NWSL: three games in the remaining regular season and all three playoff games. Hopefully this seed investment pays dividends. If you love soccer, and hell, sport in general, go catch a Reign game. The NWSL is full of world-class players playing excellent soccer. If the women’s game can’t pick up now, when can it?